By Marienna Pope-Weidemann, communications coordinator, Right to Remain @MariennaPW
This is the third instalment of the Still We Dream series, where we’ll hear from grassroots migrant rights and racial justice organisers across the United States talk about how they’re building their movements in Trump’s America and tackling racial privilege not just beyond the movement – but to transform it within.
Reyna Wences is a Latinx immigrant community organiser based in Chicago, Illinois and co-founder of Mijente: a radical, national Latinx and Chincanx organising network that launched in December 2015. She came to the United States from Mexico aged 9 and has over 7 years experience organising communities against detention, deportation and injustice. Evolving from the #NotOneMore anti-deportation campaigns, Mijente – meaning ‘my people’ – foregrounds intersectionality, open-source organising and community activism.
Marienna: Hi Reyna, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. What’s the political situation like in Chicago right now, how are people feeling?
Reyna: In the early days of Trump’s presidency there was a lot of panic and uncertainty and many more questions than answers. We were watching him enact all these executive orders and trying to figure out how local government would respond. But pretty quick we started seeing a lot more community members coming out to lead workshops, share training and resources. That’s been really positive. There’s still a lot of fear, though.
Marienna: How does that compare to community life and movement building under Obama? Because I know a lot of what’s getting more coverage now – direct action and disruption of raids by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) – started during the historic crackdown on undocumented people by the Obama administration, but went much more unnoticed.
Reyna: You’re totally right, all this began under Obama. The growing criminalisation of immigrants, more and more deportations, all that started in 2008. And in those years we were focused on trying to cut ties between police and ICE, highlighting the way the criminal justice and immigration systems, which should be separate, were being blurred to increasingly criminalise immigrants.
What we’re seeing now is a growing disregard for some of the victories that we’d won on that front. Police are collaborating more with ICE to turn people in and there’s a greater ICE presence in court rooms. Chicago is seen as a ‘Sanctuary City’, public officials will say immigrants are safe here but the reality on the ground is that ICE are coming into our communities and even if the police aren’t explicitly collaborating we know ICE has access to their databases. They know where to go and how to get people. There’s a so-called ‘gang database’ here in Chicago, we don’t know how people are on it or if there’s a way to get off it but we’ve had reports of babies being on these databases, which is crazy. ICE uses them to pick and choose who they’ll go after, and it hints at a larger problem because of course 90 percent of the time the people on these things are black and Latino men. So we want to push for more transparency and cut ICE’s access to it.
But with Trump at least there’s been a shift in the public narrative. We’ve had more media attention on raids and deportations particularly of victims of domestic violence and DACA recipients when they get picked up. In the early Obama years, the Not One More mobilisations against deportations highlighted personal stories of people being dragged into that deportation pipeline. We didn’t get much coverage so those stories were only getting us so far. Towards 2013 there was an increase in public campaigns and petitions but we were just fighting case by case, case by case. So one of the big questions was how to continue that case work but make it sustainable. And one of the core ideas that came out of that was that those directly affected by deportation, incarceration and so on – they should be leading the movement. The other thing that emerged was a realisation that while we can use our stories as tools for political change, there are limitations to that. So we started connecting this to the way we would take up space to tell our stories, re-claiming that space that often wasn’t given to us in the press, in society and often in the movement. We decided to start using our bodies to do that.
Marienna: This is when non-violent direct action started to become more central?
Reyna: Yes. We started putting our bodies on the line to highlight that intensity and create a moment in which people had to physically decide whether to be on the side of the oppressor or on the side of the oppressed, of people putting their bodies on the line to try and keep families together.
We don’t just think about direct action as the actions themselves, as getting arrested to get press attention, or just as symbolic, it is very much part of a deeper process to re-claim the space denied to us, even in the movement itself. It’s also about highlighting the fact that whatever damage is risked to us, it’s much smaller than the greater damage this government inflicts on our whole communities. Often, those risking arrest are undocumented. They are really risking it all because they don’t have status. And the way they often explain that choice, is that they’d rather risk arrest on their own terms, for something, instead of getting caught up in a raid any other day.
Marienna: It still seems quite extraordinary, the degree of confidence that would be required for people in that position to take that kind of risk. It really shows how effective Mijente and allied groups must have been in raising people’s confidence in the possibility of change, and in you as a group.
Reyna: Yeah, a lot of it is building confidence, building trust for people who’ve spent so many years living in the shadows and as second class citizens. When people come into contact with us at the start there’s a lot of hesitancy around sharing their stories or what is going on with their case, but as we engage and listen and connect our different identities and build relationships, people ease up and the people who have decided to take that stand, they do it not just because they trust us but because they trust that they’re on the right side of history.
Marienna: I want to highlight a quote I took from Mijente’s founding statement that I was really struck by: the call to be “not simply pro-Latino, but also pro-woman, pro-queer, pro-poor, pro-Black, pro-indigenous, pro-climate because OUR community is all of those things and WE care about all of them.” It’s a really inspiring but very ambitious manifesto, asking people to commit themselves to so many things at once… How did you win that as a starting point? Was it a case of only bringing in people who could agree to it or did it emerge from debate over time?
Reyna: It was a balance of both but Mijente as a network was created to take the next step towards building a Latinx platform that was pro all these things. I think we get so used to being ‘anti-’ that sometimes we miss ways to talk about what we do believe in. A point of particular commonality with other groups and movements nationwide was the movement for black lives, Black Lives Matter. We knew the Latinx community had to figure out a way to articulate itself as pro-black, and to call out our own community for being anti-black, which it often is. Rarely do we see immigrant experiences depicted as black experience. African origin immigrants are rubbed out and mainstream immigrant rights movements have always cast it as a Latino issue. This manifesto gets at the need to acknowledge that. People came into the space knowing that it was always meant to be pro- all these things, so coming into it forced people to ask themselves: are they ready to do that?
So yes, it’s existence highlights the need and the will to be ambitious, to go beyond what we already know and get to the place that we want to see. One of my favourite sayings, and I think I got this from the X-Files, is that whatever can be imagined can be achieved. So in a moment we’re under constant attack from different systems of oppression, we can still claim ownership of that right to believe in things and it cannot be taken away; and will eventually win us liberation.
Marienna: I think X-Files stole that quote from Albert Einstein, so you’ve got a good source for it… How do you centre the movement for black lives and black justice in all this? Is there a way in which the growing criminalisation of immigrants, the state blurring the lines between immigration and criminal justice, has also brought these frontline communities together more?
Reyna: Yes. There was a moment in the fight against deportations that people realised the criminal justice and immigration systems are intertwined – and for a reason. We see huge profits made from immigrants and forced labour for those incarcerated in private prisons and detention centres and we only expect that to grow under this administration. Through that it also became more evident that our liberation is connected to black liberation in that we cannot be free if the black community in the United States is not free.
That means we have to check ourselves because we come from a different experience as immigrants in this country. What that check means to me is that as we recognise that our identities and struggles are connected, we also recognise they they are not the same. Undocumented immigrants with light skin have very different and in many ways easier experiences than undocumented immigrants of colour.
Figuring out what these strategies are going to look like really began with that ICE blockade direct action video I shared with you, was the culmination of a long process of collaboration, confidence and relationship building with the Black Youth Project 100. That was when our strategies started to change, we could see that just looking at the faces of those taking part. And it hints at what’s possible. Now, we’re having very broad conversations about what the Sanctuary City really means, with Black Lives Matter and BYP100, plus the Arab-American Action Network because we’re all being targeted by this administration and so we need to reach out.
Marienna: How’s the definition of ‘sanctuary’ evolving to meet this new situation?
Reyna: It’s been adapted a lot by different communities in different localities to meet their needs. In Chicago it looks different to Arizona, where being close to the Mexican border they’re having to resist raids and deportations at an incredible rate. With Trump’s election and even before, when it became clear Obama wasn’t listening to us, we had to turn away from the mainstream and go back to our communities; back to the basics, listening to the needs of those hardest hit. And we’ve been working on Community Defence Zones which are about sharing and arming each other with the resources and tactics developed in the past and evolving them because with Trump so much has changed. We’re living under a police state. More people are waking up to that now, though it’s been a reality for the black community for many years. And so what worked for us before is unlikely to work now and we’ve learned enough to know we need to take the time to reflect and re-build.
Something else I’d like to share is there was a recent story about a DACA recipient who was detained after sharing her undocumented status at a press conference. As a result of that some people have started voicing reservations about undocumented people coming out of the shadows; saying maybe it’s safer not to disclose it. And some of that comes from a good place but it’s a place of fear that takes agency away from us. It fails to recognise that sharing our stories is an act of political resistance. Telling us to go back into the dark does more harm than good, it just repeats what the system has been telling us all these years: to not come out, to live an underground existence outside of society… and all we’ve seen since 2010, with undocumented youth refusing to hide in shame, has empowered us and driven all our movement has achieved.
Marienna: Speaking of ‘coming out’… The undocumented LGBTQ+ community has played a really powerful role in raising consciousness by ‘coming out’ in both senses and to both communities. It’s scary enough coming out as queer in a homophobic society, without – as so many do – simultaneously risking the support we get from the LGBTQ community by coming out as undocumented and risking discrimination from both sides. But the courage to do that seems to be forging really powerful and meaningful links between the LGBTQ and migrant liberation movements. How did all that start?
Reyna: The Coming Out of the Shadows rallies were named to honour the gay liberation movement and the experiences of undocumented people declaring themselves. It all started with the Immigrant Youth Justice League which I also co-founded back in 2009. Many of us identified as members of the LGBTQ community, and I was one of many that came out as queer before coming out as undocumented. The message I got from society was definitely that it was even worse, much worse, to be undocumented than it was to be gay in America. But when I did choose to address my undocumented status, I could draw a lot from my early experiences of hiding and struggling with my sexuality, and then the experience of what it meant to truthfully.
I remember these early conversations about what it would be like if we had events where undocumented people came out, and people were like: “but where do they come out from? If gay people come out of the closet…” and we all started laughing, “we come out of the shadows!” Because people never see us. And in the process of naming these emotions, we realised how much cross over there was, I guess. And now, looking at the organisations on the ground doing the most radical, intentional work getting to the root of the issue – they’re all led by women of colour, often queer women of colour. And I think I will follow women of colour, queer or not, because I have faith that those who are most directly impacted are going to be the ones to lead us to liberation.
Marienna: You’ve cautioned against strategies for movement building that are always on the defensive, reacting to attacks from the state – can you explain a bit more about why even now, you advocate creating time and space to do deeper work?
In the Obama years, we had to respond every 6-8 months to some big announcement, which often gave protections to some while stripping them from others. When he would say things like: “I’m only deporting felons, not families,” and we knew that was a lie so we spent a lot of energy trying to prove it, presenting counter-arguments and also pointing out that “felons have families too,” you know, a lot of us have felons in our families. And that’s a point we had to argue a lot within the movement as well because lots of people wanted to throw those felons under the bus to win some crumbs from the administration. Dealing with that sort of thing is exhausting. Constant reaction and defensive fighting, apart from the fact that it can be divisive, burns people out. They get tired. It leaves little room for self-reflection, sharing and envisioning work that brings people together.
Now, that seems to be happening. We’re making a very broad effort, as are others, to be less reactionary and our demands are actually becoming more coherent as a result of that. When Trump was elected people saw pretty quickly that just because things were getting worse, didn’t mean reactionary and defensive work was becoming more effective. With the Muslim travel ban, for instance, that first time, the airports were packed with people and then what happened? Days went by, crowds dwindled and by the time the second travel ban was announced some days ago, we’re not seeing the same reaction on the ground. I believe in the power of reacting in massive numbers but I’m becoming very wary of the un-sustainability of it. It’s only part of the answer.
Marienna: Definitely. We saw the same thing over here:big, quite spontaneous protests in response to Trump’s inauguration and his proposed state visit to the UK. Lots of young people came out for the first time and really seemed to get a sense that this wasn’t just about a policy we didn’t like but something that represents an existential threat to who we are but still, those big one-day mobilisations haven’t kept rolling onto the second travel ban here, either. And a lot of people are asking themselves: how do we build power at the community level – power that lasts? Are you still having that argument too?
Reyna: Oh, yes… One of the very first documents Mijente co-authored was around different levels of organising and engagement to make the case that we don’t have to be physically together all the time to know that we’re fighting together. It outlined different levels of engagement from sharing on social media to ‘co-conspirators’ who are organising as part of their daily lives. Normalising that worked out great for us because there are many individuals or groups who had their hands tied for one reason or another but could engage at lower levels. To build power that lasts we need to create a culture that recognises different capacities to engage, because of privilege or politics or whatever, and accepts that reality. Otherwise you just lose people.
Marienna: Another thing I noticed was that you make a lot of use of crowd-sourcing and open source principles. That’s something we’re starting to explore at Right to Remain as we get These Walls Must Fall off the ground – that’s our open-source project around detention campaigning. Can you speak to why you find that open-source approach useful?
Reyna: It’s a more interactive way of collaborating on these things, all dumping the knowledge that we have so other people in other places can pick up what might be useful and find out what works for them and what doesn’t. It’s something we’ve been doing since back before Mijente. It’s really about being open to sharing ideas and not having ownership over strategies and theories because we want them to benefit the movement as a whole. Crowd-sourcing documents and toolkits are really starting points to introduce mental models that don’t replicate some of the top-down, oppressive behaviours we’re exposed to by wider society. Sometimes it’s easy as organisers to end up adopting the approaches of our opponents, to out-gun them in a way. And these tools open us to the idea of not having ownership, which I’ve learned is really important. To do this work well you have to be ok with it being bigger than you, you know? Stepping back, whoever you are. No one group has all the answers for what this movement should be and how it should be led. We’re all coming from different places and being open about that is what puts you in the best place, actually, to figure out where the commonality is and how we can build real unity.
Marienna: That links back I think to what you were saying earlier about opening up strategic conversations like this, being very aware of where power and privilege rests within the movement as well as with the state. Beyond open-source ideas, can you share any more practical insights from your years bringing different communities together?
Reyna: Yeah, when I first started organising with young undocumented people there were a lot of questions around people coming into these spaces as allies with their privilege being their documented status, and in addition to that often citizens and white citizens. When we started organising Coming Out of the Shadows, we were very explicit about our intention to amplify the voices of undocumented people. At times that was pushed back by those with status who wanted to know why as citizens they were being asked to take a step back. It wasn’t that they were being pushed out of the space – although we have used undocumented only spaces and people of colour only spaces – saying that this alienates communities, pushing away people who want to understand our struggle and support us. For many of us, the answer to that is that we shouldn’t have to educate every white citizen ally that comes into our spaces. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place but rather that they should be guided to a person or group that has capacity to offer that education, so the labour doesn’t always fall on the most marginalised.
Marienna: And encouraging allies to take on a share of the responsibility for their own education, right?
Reyna: Yes, exactly. Looking back at it now I think it’s a lot more complex than defining people’s input based exclusively on their identity or their status because our identities themselves are complex, right? We have many families that identify as ‘mixed-status families’: let’s say a Latinx family with two undocumented members and one maybe a legal permanent residence and maybe one child has citizenship. So our early approach left out not just white allies and demanding educational labour from us but also many people in our community caught at the intersection with family relationships.
I don’t regret being part of undocumented-only spaces because for so many years we’ve been kept down in the shadows and unable to share our side of the story and we needed that. Getting it from undocumented-only spaces was a necessary step for many of us because there, we wouldn’t have to explain and defend our experiences from those who don’t understand. And these experiences are deeply traumatic, so re-living them takes a toll on us especially at the start. I hate when people say immigration is beautiful because for me and everyone I know who’s crossed the border it was never beautiful, it was just traumatic.
I think we’re in a different moment now, though, and that early work laid the groundwork for intentional collaboration and linking up different communities. We’ve built a culture where people know, when they come in, what their role is expected to be and what the space is for and that’s enormously helpful. Also with black liberation groups, with whom we also have to check ourselves because again, we have connected struggles but they’re not the same. And we’re also working to take responsibility for that, for coming from a place of respect and love.
Marienna: Absolutely. It’s been an enormous pleasure to listen to you, and really useful I’m sure for many organisers here. If I can ask one last question: what’s your message for migrant communities here in the UK, and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there, and what will keep us going until we do?
Reyna: Maybe I’m a pessimist but I do believe we’re in a moment now when we must be ready to celebrate the smallest of victories and also ready to lose a lot. And in the chaos of the world in which we’re living now, it’s really easy to get caught up in an alternative reality: “what if this wasn’t happening?” But now, those who’ve chosen to stay and fight are creating their own reality, here and now.
I also want to say to everyone over there in the UK: we see you. We see the resistance and every action we’re able to see and share with our people, they give us hope. I think it gives them hope, to know they’re not the only ones fighting against these same systems of oppression. I don’t know that we’re going to find the answers to all these questions about the path to liberation but I hope this moment will bring us together, to imagine the world we want to see and find the strength to get there.
Photography courtesy of Mijente
This series of articles is also being published in abbreviated form by Red Pepper